The Chromatic Harp

inside harp landscape
Two Whole-Tone Scales crossing each other

The modern chromatic harp (6/6) : two rows of strings cross each other. Each side has 6 strings per octave as opposed to 7 and 5 (chromatic harp “Pleyel”). Whereas the logic of the Pleyel harp can be compared to a piano, with 7 white and 5 black keys per octave, the 6/6 chromatic harp has no “favourite key” – F# major is technically as easy or difficult to play as C major!

A shape (fingering) corresponds to a sound / melodic experience, and transposing seems more obvious, seeing the symmetry – transposing any given shape means either to give it a parallel shift, or to mirror it, the crossing line of the strings being the mirror . To reach both sides with both hands, we usually play in the middle of the harp, close to the crossing point, with a mixed “thumbs up and thumbs down” technique.

This type of cross-strung chromatic harp has two whole tone scales crossing and complementing each other: CDEF#G#Bb on one row and C#EbFGAB on the other row.

Christoph Pampuch in Germany redesigned and presented the first of these 6/6 harps,  in 1997-98. I was fascinated and ordered mine straightaway from the “Klangwerkstatt” after hearing him, but had to wait for it over a year (that was before they offered it to be built at one of their harp making courses), and finally in 1999,  the chromatic adventure could begin!

I had been playing the “celtic” or Irish harp since 1989 and juggled and struggled with lever change acrobatics on Bach tunes, and of course, growing up in Belgium I had already come across the Pleyel harp several times, and had boldly experimented with crossing extra strings into my celtic harp (!) so it was meant to happen, sooner or later.

The harp on these pictures was made by Henrik Schupp (Hamburg). I’m taking my time finding my way around this instrument as I am completely self taught. Seeing Christoph playing his harp did of course inspire me at the very start (especially the idea of using the 5th finger), as much as the Belgian Pleyel harp players Cecile Marichal and Paola Chatelle. A big influence on my playing were the classical pedal harp lessons I got from the Belgian harpist Sophie Hallynck many years ago. I also get inspiration from previous guitar and piano experience which lead me to “think outside the box” when it comes to fingerings and hand positions, which is of course a lot of fun!

Henrik Schupp’s harp needs more finger strength so it’s a bit more of a workout compared to the gentle klangwerkstatt harps, but it gives you more dynamics. Originally strung with carbon fibre strings, I switched to nylon strings (sound sample: see Bach prelude in C on the playlist) and am finally playing on gut strings ( see sound sample “Pescetti Sonata in Cm on Chromatic Harp”). Henrik’s big chromatic harp got a little sister in 2018, it can be seen in the youtube clip “Amala – Lullaby of Birdland”, with nylon strings.

I’m often being asked to publish sheet music for this new instrument. The reason why I am very slow to do so is that firstly I’m still finding completely new ways of doing things, even after so many years. I don’t want to write things in stone yet, but rather keep my mind open and creative. Secondly, in the new chromatic harp community we have a wide diversity of instruments. Fingerings which would suit a low-tension, narrow-strung klangwerkstatt harp would not necessarily suit my medium-tension, wide-strung Schupp-harp and vice versa.

LISTEN to a few tunes played on this instrument here:

The chromatic harp can also be heard with a Jazz tune on Amala’s CD “resonance” (2016) ; see http://www.amala.ie

2005 with my 2nd chromatic harp
(made at a harp making workshop with “klangwerkstatt” harp makers)
Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home (Dowland) played by duo Amala (harp & guitar)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56jAlW_GJfE